The speedy branch of rap known as grime — an English mixture of hip-hop and strains of dance music, like garage and drum and bass — is having a moment in America. Skepta, currently grime’s most visible practitioner on this side of the Atlantic, took the stage at MOMA PS1 in New York City on Saturday, July 25. The show also included talent from closer to home (Chicago’s Sicko Mobb, Toronto’s Tory Lanez), but Skepta was the main attraction.
This is not the first time Americans have taken a sudden interest in grime. In 2003, The New York Times‘ Kelefa Sanneh wrote that Dizzee Rascal, one of the genre’s first stars, attracted “a small group of American hipsters and record geeks… entranced by his exotic slang and peculiar electronic compositions.” At that time, Sanneh wondered if “Dizzee is blazing a new trail for black British music,” or if he would “turn out to be an anomaly — a solitary virtuoso whose musical revolution starts and ends with his own records.”
Sanneh’s closing remark was prescient on these shores, where grime has barely made a dent since the mid ’00s. So why is it reentering American consciousness? The arrival of the Internet as the major conduit for new music makes one massive difference. Music blogs and streaming services are now expert at pulling music from disparate corners of the globe and pushing it into the spotlight, usually totally without context.
A related factor is Beats 1 Radio, the new outgrowth of iTunes that you can listen to online. It remains to be seen how much of an impact the station will have, but its support for grime cannot be questioned: Skepta’s single “Shutdown” was one of the Top 20 most played songs during the platform’s first week. The MC’s sister, Julie Adenuga, happens to be one of Beats 1’s big name DJs, along with Zane Lowe and Ebro Darden. The latest version of grime has other high-profile champions in Kanye West and Drake, both known for their ability to propel artists into the upper echelon of the pop world.
Grime’s combative style also helps feed its new popularity. At a time when aggressive rap has mostly been pushed aside in America by its more melodic counterpart, grime erupts out of speakers in stuttering, steroid-enhanced salvos. And America has a long history of fascination with English pop, which serves back to us warped versions of our own music — with accents.
At the show on Saturday, Skepta’s accent was definitely part of his attraction. Listeners knew the words to three of his songs: “That’s Not Me,” which kicked off the set with its bubbly synth tones, “It Ain’t Safe,” which appeared near the end, and “Shut Down,” which closed out the show. All the American fans yelled the hooks to these tracks in English accents, as if they were auditioning for some weird Masterpiece Theater special.
Skepta delivered most of his verses in double time — he raps like he’s building a tower out of blocks, stacking syllables into tightly-packed formations, kicking them down, and piling them up again. When he stresses syllables they land with the force of a falling brick, and his hooks are like bludgeons. He’s always pushing forward, lively and brusque, but also sometimes formulaic.
At PS1, his beats were bruising and dynamic, if limited in range. They offered a place of refuge for listeners sick of sounds derived from rap’s current dominant schools — Drake, trap, or DJ Mustard. That being said, a song like “It Ain’t Safe,” a collaboration with the New York rapper Young Lord, basically reworks the beat from Kanye’s “Clique” (or more recently, Mike Will Made It’s instrumental from “Move That Dope”). And when Skepta turned reflective for “Castles,” he lost the crowd — they wanted grime for a few things, but contemplation wasn’t one of them.
In general, Skepta walks a fine line in relation to American hip-hop — he benefits from being separate from it, but he also gains by incorporating it into his work. He performed his song “Ace Hood Flow,” which calls out other grime artists for lack of imagination: “I’ve been keeping my ear to the streets / The UK run out of ideas, everybody doing covers of American beats.” But Skepta himself has collaborated with members of three different New York rap crews (Ratking, A$AP Mob, and the Flatbush Zombies), and a song like “It Ain’t Safe” does not sound like grime.
Skepta was not the only ambassador from a regional music scene at PS1: Sicko Mobb, a duo associated with the cheery mix of dance beats and hip-hop called bop, also took the stage. Bop unfortunately doesn’t have the backing of Beats 1 or Drake, so it’s still mostly a Chicago enterprise. While Skepta’s style is heavy-handed and earthbound, Sicko Mobb’s mission is to soar into the stratosphere. On recording, their songs overflow with joyful, technologically-enhanced detail, but they barely seemed to register on PS1’s sound system. The group played for at most ten minutes before they called it quits.
Tory Lanez rounded out the triple bill of performers; his mix of rap and R&B is far more conventional than either grime or bop. Perhaps that’s why after last year’s Chixtape 2, which spliced, parsed, and reassembled the DNA of ’90s R&B, Lanez changed direction and connected with WEDIDIT, a group of L.A. producers who favor bass-heavy electronic music.
At PS1, he played “In for It,” a glistening, fearsome slice of R&B (produced by WEDIDIT’s RL Grime) that appeared on Lanez’ recent Cruel Intentions EP. Each time the singer seemed on the verge of being overly sexually aggressive — “shorty I want, shorty I want” — the drums surged and he changed course, sneaking his way towards charm: “whatever you want.” He also performed “Dimelo,” another new tune put together with help from the two London producers who work as Snakehips. Lanez moved between a sugary serenade and an abrasive flow, but what do you know — the beat sounded like it could have been grime.